Delightful Provincial Cambodia 9 – Out Of Mondulkiri
On our last afternoon in Mondulkiri we try to find "Swiss Cheese Hill", so named by guidebook author Matt Jacobson: an area bombed heavily by Americans during what philantropist Richard Nixon called a "side show" to the Vietnam war. We can make out just only one crater, but we see a small pagoda on a steep hilltop.
— THE HILL —
After some talk I manage to convince Norah to *walk* up the stair to the pagoda hill instead of taking the driveway on the rear side. Now this is a nice peaceful place, affording generous views over Mondulkiri's rolling hillscape. We just came right for sunset. We share the tiny pagoda area with a group of young Khmer tourists.
In the black night we direct the pickup back to town, straight across Sen Monorom's unused red-dirt airstrip. We see the Khmer tourists walking in our direction. I open the window and ask:
"Tow na?" – Where do you go?
"Tow psah!" – Go to market/town center.
"Tow psah pohng, ad panyaha!" – Go market too, no problem.
A big "YEAH" can be heard in the quiet Mondulkiri night. Ten people jump onto cargo bed, three more beleaguer the back seats. They are a group of friends who came for a three-day-trip from PP. After two kilometers we reach the market and get lots of "thankyous" and "goodluck" upon goodbye.
— ROLLING HOME —
Rolling back home to Phnom Penh over a decent dirt road, we see several "wild roosters" in shiny feathers, just like farm animals, but looking much healthier. They fly leasurely across the piste. "What, you don't have these in your country", asks Norah with surprise?
We do another stopover in Kompong Cham, this time we try the Mittapheap Hotel (see previous articles). The last part is on Highway 6, also used for driving between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. At a gas station in Skone we see the famous snack sellers offering fried spiders to truck drivers. No joke!
"They are not really spiders, but a little bit different", explains my food-conscious Norah. She says she never tried them, though. Thank you, darling. Even though the black monsters are "not really spiders", I loose my investigative edge and instead of snapping another unique piece of Camboland in macro mode, I press the accelerator, firmly.
— LOOKING BACK —
Now when I look back to all our trips around delightful provincial Cambodia – which impressions may last? Easy to say: The meetings with the people. The cheerful coffee shop lady on the road to Veal Veng; the Phnong family in Mondulkiri; the hello kids on Ko Paen island near Kompong Cham; the distinguished lady on the Bassac river vegetable field (see later article).
But then: all these were short encounters, and I had no wish to extend them. Cambodians are so different, so much occupied with their everyday fight for survival in a country ruled by bandits in silk. There is little real exchange of thoughts, and there is nothing, but nothing, of the easygoing relaxed playfulness I enjoy so much in provincial Thailand, especially on the Thai Mekong coast. Cambodia is just too poor and medieval for me.
If it weren't for wonderful caring ever-surprising Norah, I'd prefer Thailand as a holiday destination anytime. My pics on this series aren't overtly striking, and it's not only because of the talent on my side – but also because of limited attractions throughout Cambodia. Cambodia has no natural sensations in the line of Thailand's Krabi coast, southern Vietnam's Mekong delta jungle or southern Laos' splendid "4000 Islands" in Mekong river.
In Cambodia, if you want to unwind, want to see something charming, simply beautiful, stress- and beggarfree – where would you go? Please write in if you do know a place.
Cambodia boasts only one decent beach town, Sihanoukville, and there in the course of one hour you are physically forced to talk 200 snack sellers, tour touts and beggars. Cambodia's capital has only one small place for a stroll in the evening, the semi-clean riverside, but there in the course of one hour you are physically forced to process about 2000 snack sellers and beggars. Yes, in Bangkok's Lumphini park you are much more free and easy than anywhere in Cambodia outside of your local apartment with all the windows behind steel bars.
Despite all the misery many Khmers are fiercely proud of their country and of their sour soups. They despise Thais and Vietnameses. Norah claims she could live with me in Cambodia or Europe (where she has never been). When I suggest that Thailand might be a relaxed place for both of us – she refuses to only consider staying there.
And it's not only the people and the countryside that make Thailand more appealing. Music and food are of course much better there than in Cambodia. Thai language sounds much better, and the letters look much better than Khmer.
Don't tell Norah.
— CAR CARE —
After Mondulkiri, the car is solidly covered in red dirt – and that includes the interior. We can't give the dirty Isuzu back like that to our generous Cambodian friends, the car owners. In downtown Phnom Penh, Norah directs us to a car wash. We drive into a courtyard and up a ramp. We can hardly flee the scene before ten wet boys with water hoses descend upon the pickup, showering it thoroughly. They go into all the corners and remove veritable gobbets of red dirt from the rims. When I start to take pictures, the boss tells Norah I should stop this.
Then the car is driven 20 meters on, where ten ladies take more care, cleaning the interior and drying up the outside. They all have a kromas draped around their heads, the trademark Cambodian chequered cloth, and they use more kromas for their cleaning jobs.
After 30 minutes, we get back a shiny new car. We are charged 6000 riels, 1,50 USD.
Then there is another issue. In the last days, on full left-turns, the car would make an uneasy noise. We stop at a garage near the car wash. The heavy thing is lifted up with a tiny car jack, then they remove the left wheel. They inspect the transmission for 15 minutes, check a price list and say they'd need 178 USD to fix the problem. I look at Norah. She just smiles at the boss and says "No thank you".
Back in the car, Norah comments: "too expensive, what is that?!" She wants to consult another garage that her family has used for years, "they never lie and ask for too much money". For this garage we drive back to the edge of town and enter one of Phnom Penh's many dirt roads. The garage's front yard is parked full, so our pickup stays on the roadside. A boy drags the car jack out, plants it into the street dirt and lifts the car up right on the street. He removes the left wheel, inspects the transmission for 15 minutes and says he'd need 20 USD and one hour to fix the problem. But we could also drive on with the car like that, a service would not be essential now.
We tell him to repair everything as best as possible and go to eat "ban chao" at the food stall next door, crispy Vietnam-style pancakes filled with vegetables and salad ("banh xeo" in Vietnamese).
A little later we pick up the car, fill up on gasoline and bring a squeaky clean and now smooth running Isuzu pickup back to our friends.
Delightful Provincial Cambodia –
– 1 Kompong Chnang, Kompong Luong, Pursat Town
– 2 Pursat to Pramaui (Veal Veng District)
– 3 Pramaui to Thmordah (Veal Veng District)
– 4 Kompong Cham Town
– 5 Around Kompong Cham
– 6 Into Mondulkiri
– 7 Mondulkiri Elephant Outing
– 8 Mondulkiri Boo Sra
– 9 Out Of Mondulkiri
– 10 Bassac River Road 1 (Kandal Province)
– 11 Bassac River Road 2 (End)
Another EXCELLENT series form Mr. Meier.